Looking to prop up local shops, the Mountain View City Council on Tuesday approved initiatives to help revitalize the downtown business community. The new program aims to toss a lifeline to downtown's brick-and-mortar shops, which city officials say are straggling behind the bustling tech offices and restaurants along Castro Street.
At the same Feb. 27 meeting, the council also approved limited operation of delivery robots on city sidewalks.
City officials pointed to a sweeping new downtown study showing the price of commercial retail leases has increased by about 50 percent since 2010. Over that period, revenues at many downtown restaurants have more than doubled, according to the study. However, retail shops haven't seen similar economic gains; in fact, some merchants have actually seen their profits drop since the recession.
The city's economic development team proposed a $30,000 package of new initiatives that would be launched over the next fiscal year that they believe will provide the retail sector with a much needed shot in the arm.
Among the ideas suggested, the city would give downtown shops discounts on parking permits, allowing workers to park for half the normal cost. The city would also start a fast-track permitting process for retail businesses, allowing them to get priority for most interior improvements. Seeing a generational shift away from retail, city officials are also proposing plans to encourage more pop-up shops and downtown art displays, especially at vacant storefronts, in hopes of appealing to a younger crowd.
Some council members were less enthusiastic about a $65,000 plan to increase the frequency of sidewalk cleanings in the downtown area. Several suggested abandoning that plan and redirecting that money to other projects.
More funds would be directed to new downtown branding campaign to help promote and market the area. The city will also spend $20,000 for a new round of studies to develop a larger strategy for helping downtown shops.
Despite some dissent about the sidewalk cleaning, the council approved the package of new downtown retail incentives in a unanimous vote.
In another issue affecting downtown businesses, city leaders on Tuesday night also backed plans to allow delivery robots to begin operating on a limited basis in Mountain View. So far, four companies have approached Mountain View with plans to begin piloting so-called personal delivery devices on local sidewalks. These robots could deliver groceries, restaurant take-out orders or other items from shops to customers.
So far, nine cities in the Bay Area have signed agreements to allow companies to begin a pilot phase of testing these robots on public walkways.
Ryan Tuohy of Starship Technologies, one of the companies developing the technology, said the robots wouldn't be deployed at this stage for routine trips to customers. As an example, he said that Intuit's offices in Mountain View are already using his company's prototypes to fetch small food and drink orders around the corporate campus.
"These are not going to be summoned by John Q. Public," he said. "Only organizations with an agreement with us will have access to these devices."
Tuohy and representatives of the other companies said that their technology had proven safety records and promised to someday reduce traffic on roadways. They also pledged to share their data on traffic patterns with city officials to help with future planning efforts.
Under the new agreement, Mountain View staff would allow three companies to operate delivery robots in the city. No more than 10 robots could be deployed at any one time, and every robot would need to be accompanied by a human handler, at least for the initial months of the program. The robots would travel no faster than 5 mph, and they would be required to yield to any pedestrians.
But even with those restrictions, the technology still raised concerns that the public sidewalks would be crowded out by private autonomous couriers. Mayor Lenny Siegel joined those skeptics, explaining he didn't see much value in it.
"This didn't come from any need of our residents," said Mayor Lenny Siegel. "People are excited about new technology but we have to think this through -- I'm not excited about this at all."
The pilot program was approved in a 6-1 vote, with Siegel opposed.